Portland police adding mental health unit

Police plan to revise policy, revive specialized team

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PORTLAND — The Portland Police Bureau is creating a crisis intervention team and updating its written policy on the use of Taser stun guns in response to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found officers too frequently use excessive force against mentally ill people.

The Police Bureau said Wednesday that all officers will continue to be trained in how to deal with mentally ill people, but a specialized team will be dispatched when a mental health issue is the main reason for the call. The officers on the team will perform their usual patrol duties when there is no mental health crisis.

Portland had such a team until five years ago, when it was disbanded in favor of training all officers. Police Chief Mike Reese opted to restart the team after meeting with members of National Alliance on Mental Illness and other people with a stake in the issue.

The Justice Department opened an investigation in 2011 to examine whether Portland police engaged in a "pattern or practice" of excessive force when dealing with mentally ill people. Agency officials concluded in September that such a pattern exists and have been trying to reach a settlement with city leaders on needed police reforms. The moves announced Wednesday do not represent a settlement.

The Justice Department investigation listed several examples in which officers used Taser stun guns without justification against people in a mental health crisis.

Proposed changes

Sgt. Pete Simpson, a bureau spokesman, characterized the changes to the written Taser policy as an update to reflect the training officers are receiving.

Simpson said officers are being trained to handcuff people -- instead of subjecting them to multiple uses of a stun gun -- when it seems they are unable to follow commands because of a mental health issue.

The updated policy now says: "(Officers) should evaluate their force options and give strong consideration to other force options, if the Taser is not effective after two applications on the same person."

The proposal states police should only deploy a stun gun when a person is engaged in "active aggression" or "active resistance," and prohibits officers from using one on suspects who are running away.

There is a loophole, however, for when the escape presents a "significant danger to the public, officers or the subject."

The bureau also proposed changes to its policies on the application of force and use of deadly force.

All the proposals were posted at portlandonline.com/police Wednesday and community feedback is sought by Nov. 2.